How Consumers Are Buying into the Cotton Sustainability Revolution

A now-immortal line from the 1989 film Field of Dreams encapsulates the optimism that drives new businesses and ventures: “If you build it, they will come.” A caveat to this optimism should be that people will come if you give them a reason. The evolution of cotton production toward sustainable practices is no exception.

However easy it’s made to be, sustainability requires real change on the part of consumers as well as producers. For now, many people need to be sold on the idea of sustainable cotton. Yet this isn’t as difficult of a proposition as one might think.

We know that people tend to embrace abstract ideas of things, and then show reluctance when they’re presented with the details. Their minds are on alert to what they’ll need to exchange – or worse, sacrifice – to benefit from this superior product. For example, there have been various versions of an experiment asking consumers how much more they would pay for a sustainably produced cotton t-shirt.

A 2013 article in Farm Progress focused on a study at Washington State University, where students were presented with two visually-identical t-shirts: one sourced from conventional cotton, and the other organic. The test was to see how far students would take their stated interest in buying sustainably produced products. But one of the findings was that students who paid for their own clothing – rather than having their clothes bought for them by their parents – were less likely to choose the sustainable shirt. These findings are less so a commentary on young people than a highlight of how important it is to show the “worth” of a product. As the authors of the study observed, if people won’t buy sustainable products in the first place, the entire discussion around their sourcing, development and marketing is moot.

A recent Vogue Business piece posed a similar question to consumers in several European countries, revealing both a national and generational divide on tolerance for higher prices. Measured in local currencies, the British were willing to pay 1.94 units more for a sustainable t-shirt, the lowest on average, compared with the Spanish at 2.86 more and Germans at 3.92 more. By age group, generation Z led the pack at willingness to pay 5.09 units more, compared with only 2.59 units for baby boomers.

This latter study observed that there may be scope for more spending on sustainable clothing, but with limitations. Much of this comes down to limited consumer knowledge on what sustainable clothing is, and why it’s important. Interestingly, Vogue concluded that labor and supply chain issues had much greater resonance with consumers as a reason to spend more on sustainable cotton products – the human face of the industry – versus environmental concerns and protection of biodiversity. The latter is a very real concern, but consumers seem to feel it is less visible to them and are less likely to feel it is worth spending more because of this issue.

Consumers will spend on identity and values, studies suggest, so how can this be harnessed here? Tara Luckman, a U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol board member and former fabric and sustainability manager at British clothier, was a recent guest on the Trust Protocol’s Smarter Conversations podcast. In order for brands to meet sustainability promises to their consumers, she notes, it is important to ensure they source responsibly, straight back to raw materials grown in the field.

These materials, such as cotton, make up a sizable portion of a finished product’s environmental footprint, and as such it is essential for brands to demonstrate footprint-reduction activities to the public. It isn’t enough to simply declare footprint-reduction measures, activity which often degenerates into meaningless virtue-signaling and “greenwashing.” To bring people onside, change and its benefits need to be demonstrated.

Sustainability programs like the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol are essential in connecting brands to raw material that corresponds to those on the acceptable inventory list of a brand. But its technological capabilities and data verification features also allow brands to credibly demonstrate their steps toward sustainability.

Technology will be immensely important in establishing traceability and transparency for brands, which, in turn, tells a story to consumers that feels visible to them. Because of globalization and the need to source raw materials near-to-market, a brand cannot credibly say its eyes are everywhere all the time. Third-party verification is required to certify sustainability programs and measures – not only things like the sources of raw materials but even worker wellbeing requirements, a key component of the Trust Protocol questionnaire, as National Cotton Council President and CEO Gary Adams points out.

Something powerful and transformative is being built in sustainable cotton production. To make the conversation fully inclusive, it needs to become more open and accessible to consumers. The more they know and feel a part of the change, the less they will have to be “sold” on it.

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